Internet Freedom in China: The Perils of “Glasnost”

People using the internet at a coffee shop in Beijing.

An article in yesterday’s New York Times reports that China’s government, after a period of liberalization in popular culture, has decided to clamp down on media and internet freedoms once again, imposing “some of the most restrictive measures in years.”  These new restrictions target 34 major satellite television stations (whose entertainment programming and use of audience voting must be curtailed) and the Twitter-like “microblogs” that have become increasingly popular over the past two years.  Sources inside the private companies that manage the microblogs are quoted as saying that “party officials are pressing for increasingly strict and swift censorship of unapproved opinions.”

These microblogs have emerged as a powerful medium for “whistle-blowing” to keep Communist party bureaucrats honest:  “Microbloggers, some of whom have attracted millions of followers, have been exposing scandals and official malfeasance, including an attempted cover-up of a recent high-speed rail accident, with astonishing speed and popularity.”     Despite the social benefits of such activity, the Communist Party clearly recognizes that giving Chinese citizens the freedom to criticize the government and potentially organize opposition movements could threaten their continued rule.

All of this is highly reminiscent of Mikhail Gorbachev’s flirtation with Glasnost (“openness”) during the 1980s in the former Soviet Union.  Gorbachev never intended to destroy Communism; rather, his goal was to strengthen and reinvigorate what had become a stagnant and corrupt system, holding bureaucrats’ feet to the fire by allowing the public to criticize inefficiencies and malfeasance.  However, once the Soviet people had a taste of (limited) freedom, the floodgates opened and their demands could no longer be denied.

Can China escape the fate of the Soviet Union?  (The USSR collapsed in 1991, not long after Gorbachev sought to open up the Soviet system).  Will China’s booming economy–in stark contrast to the USSR’s economic stagnation–allow its leaders to maintain power and contain unrest?  (China’s GDP growth has slowed somewhat, but it still remains over 9%, a very robust figure).  In other words, can economic rewards compensate for a lack of political freedom, and for how long?  Or in an era of rapid globalization, social networking, and the Arab Spring, is any regime’s efforts at centralized control and censorship of ideas doomed to failure?

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